Ai Weiwei and the 'World of Madness'

It only took a little over four days after Ai Weiwei's sudden apprehension by China's Public Security Bureau at the Beijing Airport, for the government to initiate, as is its tireless and terrifying custom, the public process of building a "case" against the disappeared by alluding to the subject's "crimes."

Owing to comments made last week in three of the Chinese Communist Party's growing number of online and print "news" sources, China and the world now know that Ai's actions were, according to Renmin Ribao ("People's Daily") and the Global Times, legally "ambiguous" and too near "the red line of Chinese law." The Global Times also reported that the departure papers for his flight to Hong Kong were "incomplete," thus he could not board the plane.

Under China's "stability maintenance" (weiwen) program, the customary circumstances of disappearance, with which many are familiar following the treatment of Liu Xiabo in 2009, who vanished for many months without acknowledgment as allusion, innuendo, and vague, groundless assertion made the case for the subsequent necessity of his "trial" and imprisonment, these are serious charges. Last Thursday morning the character assassination phase became more ominous, when Xinhua, the official news agency, reported that Ai was being "investigated for suspected economic crimes in accord with the law."

Yet, the ambiguous language of the official report conveyed that the state was having difficulty obtaining actual evidence to make such a "case." This may have been because the forty police officers who investigated Ai's studio early last week. taking a great many things including money, vigorously interrogated his assistants, only to discover that none of them knew anything of his financial matters.

Imagine living in a real world – not an imaginary one from the work of Franz Kafka – where ambiguity or a government's fear or its insecurity or its suspicion is cause for arrest. Actually, Ai Weiwei has not been "arrested." Also, he has not been "taken into custody," or "detained" or "disappeared," because these are merely the words of those attempting to describe what is self-evident but not officially acknowledged. The government has not admitted that Ai is in their grasp, although the Global Times did quote the state's spokesman Hong Lei as saying, that Ai "was said to have been detained recently," according to foreign news sources whose governments' commitments to "global values" were in conflict with "the value system of the Chinese people."

Gao Ying, Ai's mother, confirmed the truth of Hong's comment when she said to an interviewer: "We have no idea where he is at the moment," and filed a missing persons report last Tuesday. This basic fact was also why she and Ai's wife Lu Qing, whose questions to authorities had been repeatedly rebuffed, began putting up missing person fliers in Beijing reading: "Ai Weiwei, male, 53 years old. On April 3, 2011 around 8:30, at Beijing Capital International Airport, before boarding a flight to Hong Kong, he was taken away by three men. More than fifty hours later, present whereabouts remains unknown. Please, anyone who knows the whereabouts of the above, contact the family."

More telling was her rhetorical query in another interview: "How can a country with laws allow this to happen?"

It is important to remember that China's constitution states that, "Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration; the freedom of person of citizens of the People's Republic of China is inviolable." A 2004 amendment to this constitution, one that has been highly touted by Premier Wen Jiabao, confirms additional citizen guarantees more succinctly: "the state respects and protects human rights."

Gao Ying's plaintive cry is most astute because it is law, or more importantly the summary lack of respect for it as the guarantor of basic civil liberty and a documentary force independent of political manipulation, that is of concern. China is indeed a land of many laws and the Communist Party has in this very instance violated some of them – with extreme prejudice – by not informing his family of his whereabouts or permitting his attorney to speak with him. These actions are in contravention of Chinese law. But, if official organs make no admission of the artist's apprehension and instead admit that certain sources in the west reported that he may have been detained then the Chinese state believes it steps outside the trap of culpability it has set for itself.

This is cynical casuistry at its best. On April 10, however, there was one allusive but promising sign in a Global Times editorial may indicate a softening of the hardline stance: "Just because Ai Weiwei is being investigated by police on suspicion of committing economic crimes doesn't necessarily mean he will be convicted. However, guilty or not is for the court to say and foreign diplomatic and public opinion pressure will not be the determining factor."

In a newspaper interview (his last) conducted on March 29 and published just last week in Munich's Süeddeutsche Zeitung, Ai Weiwei reflected on his work in the wake of the disappearance of many of his friends and acquaintances, whose "offenses" were those of questioning, speaking or writing. With friends like Tan Zuoren (who assisted him in collecting the names of the nearly 5,000 children whose deaths were allegedly caused by official corruption responsible for the collapse of schools in the 2008 earthquake) and others already apprehended or incarcerated, he worried that he might be next, saying that in a recent interrogation, police suggested that he "go abroad" to continue his career.

When asked about his own well-being, he expressed concern about the latest campaign against free expression. He spoke with anguish about recurring nightmares of incarceration in which tourists blankly walked around the spectacle as though it was an exhibit. "They saw everything but didn't care…they simply acted as though this was quite normal… we live in a world of madness."

The proximate reason for the interview was indeed an exhibit, a real one in Beijing that marked the grand reopening of the renovated Chinese National Museum on Tian'anmen Square. A high-level German delegation led by the outgoing foreign minister Guido Westerwelle was to be in Beijing on April 1 to celebrate the opening of a very prominent German exhibit, Die Kunst der Aufklärung ("Art of the Enlightenment"), with nearly six hundred objects from the State Art Collections of Berlin, Dresden, and Munich.

When asked specifically about the upcoming exhibit and its theme Ai noted the profound irony that the sanctity of individual and conscience, freedom of expression within a civil society were Enlightenment values brought, as in the transport of the exhibit itself, from the West, but that China's own government had yet to accept them in practice. Ai had been informed that he could not appear at the opening.

It is said that when Ai Qing (Jiang Zhenghan), Ai's celebrated poet father, was jailed and tortured by the Nationalist Party (KMT) in the 1930s for his left-wing literary views, that he continued to write but found so execrable the fact that he and the leader of the KMT, Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) had the same surname that he created in protest an alternative pronounced "Ai."

Ai Weiwei bears this name and the history of artistic passion and defiance that is its legacy. This alone may ensure that the astonishing record of his diverse creations and the power of his imagination will prevail: a triumph for the Chinese people in a troubling time of madness, a triumph of Chinese Enlightenment.

Reprinted from the History News Network

Lionel M. Jensen is Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures and concurrently Associate Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.